I Am Ahab

Writing from Prison

by Todd Newmiller


Originally published in Newspeak, January 2008

The radio’s on, and coffee’s brewing with its own bubbling and dripping music, the pleasant musk of strong coffee permeating the confined space of my cell. I’m hoping strong drink will percolate strong thoughts and strong imagery, or that the involuntary movements associated with coffee jitters will spontaneously create something resembling language.


I’ll at least include whatever sad little product I have to this point.

"A common bond was gone; the strong, effective and respectable bond of a sentimental lie."


-Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the "Narcissus"


If one cares at all about truth, there exists in our legal system a tremendous structural barrier to the reasoned pursuit of the truth. The judicial and legislative branches, at all levels of government, have somehow concluded that their duty consists not of a constitutional mandate to limit the power of the executive branch; rather, a confluence of interest in unchecked government power that leads them to blindly reaffirm executive power at every turn.


We seem to believe the fallacy that police and prosecutors are reliable arbiters of truth, since they often come to their professions out of a desire to serve the community. That complicated political pressures and the groupthink common to closed, highly cohesive social groups necessarily affects the operation of the ship of the state rarely occurs to those not swallowed up by countless slight inaccuracies that (combined with one or two genuinely unethical acts and the unthinking complicity of many agents of the state) send innocent people to prison.


With a few notable exceptions, I don’t believe the police in my case are bad people. I think they are good people under pressure to deliver charges quickly. I think that some of them had unanalyzed biases that may have come into play. I also believe that several of them were perfectly willing to say things that were inaccurate or misleading in court, and to ignore facts that didn’t square with the socially constructed prosecution theory of the case.


In scientific terms, this would be called confirmation bias, the analysis of data based on preconceived notions such that important data are ignored. Of course, based on what I have seen, scientific terminology is probably not appropriate for a system in which confirmation bias appears to be the goal. Prosecutors test only those items that reinforce their version of events, ignore or destroy items of evidence that would undermine their arguments. And judges routinely allow such destruction of evidence to stand if the defendant cannot show malice or bad faith on the part of police and prosecutors, as if negligence, incompetence, or the de facto conspiracy of groupthink makes the loss of evidence any less hurtful to the cause of truth.


"When I get mad, I put it down on a pad, give you something that you never had."

-Chuck D of Public Enemy, "Welcome to the Terrordome"


In phases like the moon my mood waxes and wanes, alternately overwhelming me and filling me with hope. Unfortunately, I rarely write when in the midst of the melancholic range of that register, the range that likely provides the truest glimpse into the human soul, the human experience.


"Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."


-Thomas Alva Edison


Watching Friday Night Fights reruns on ESPN now. I have to admit to a real enjoyment of prize fighting. I’m not sure what this means about me. A young Howard Cosell would probably see no problem with it, and older (and presumably wiser) Howard Cosell would bemoan the savagery of the sport. I shudder to think what his opinion would be of my beloved mixed martial arts fighting.


Prize fighting is certainly a form of savagery, but there’s an honesty about the directness of the conflict, a nobility in the risk shared by both sides in equal measure, that seems so much more egalitarian, so much more fair, than the politics of power which are the dominant American blood sport.


I wonder how different the world would look if police and prosecutors faced risk equal in measure to the accused for their misconduct, if the bar for truthfulness and punctuality were held to the same height for both prosecution and defense, if Americans came to believe in real accountability in government, if the caste system that separates agents of the government from the rest of the population were torn down and replaced with a culture of true equality.


"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."


-Fredrick Douglass